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Teaching Philosophies: Teaching Empathy


When language is removed from the equation, as ESL teachers, sometimes we must rely on something else to communicate and relate to our students. Empathy, is the ability to perceive and understand what another person is feeling or thinking. So in that way, empathy is a very important tool for us ESL teacher's. Because when language can't help us to bridge that understanding gap, empathy can!

As our world gradually moves away from face-to-face interactions and close-knit communities, and moves towards online, hyper-media societies. Empathy is becoming a very precious and threatened human resource. It's empathy that keeps our societies together, and empathy that keeps us responsible and caring about safeguarding the opportunities of future generations.

Who'd have thought an ESL lesson is actually a perfect place to nurture this precious human trait?

There's really nothing special to it either. By default, a lot of the situations and challenges found when learning a foreign language opens up our hearts and minds to understand the perspectives of others. Empathy involves perspective-taking, so even a standard role-play exercise, or a scripted dialogue reading can be an opportunity for teaching students how to identify, understand, and relate to the feelings of others.

Plus, there's a reason why your smile and 'genki' energy go a long way when motivating your classes. This is because they are empathizing with you, even though you are a foreigner. Because smiles and positive energy are universal. Empathy is not a one way street either, it's what allows you to feel what the class is capable of, or wanting to do as well. It allows you an awareness which helps you pick and choose the proper way to teach different individuals and groups.

When students feel safe, and understood, they are more open to learning and trying new things. If you've got the power of empathy, and are able to recognize how they are feeling, you can use this to help create a more comfortable environment (or really put a chill in the air when it's time to bring down the disciplinary hammer).

An easy way to increase your teaching of empathy in class is to talk about the world with your students in the way it really is. Not to sugar coat it, or betray their trust with little white lies, but to show them how genuine you can be, and respect their intelligence and ability to face reality (if they've got it). Empathy involves perspective-taking, so put kids in roles they might not usually find themselves in. Rather than always having role-play exercises about students living in Japan. Set the stage to be in a foreign land, in difficult situations, or with the students playing the roles of famous figures, or totally foreign situations.

To help us teach a grammar point, we are already making faces and big gestures. Well researchers have found that when people imitate or see certain facial expressions, they are changes in brain detected that correspond with the emotion being performed. Whether genuine or not. People even experience changes in heart rate, skin conductance, and body temperature... So if you can get your students to act out those emotions with you, or you really make them feel your acting skills, you're not only teaching them English, but empathy as well, albeit little by little.

Other research has shown that kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong, and a healthy sense of empathy towards others, if they are raised with an approach that emphasizes explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments. So respect their intelligence, and get on their level, and you are helping create a better society!

Wow... English teachers are amazing. Now you've got a new bullet point for your resume.

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